All posts by Michael Hughes

Black Women in Law Enforcement

This is the third in a series of articles written to commemorate Black History Month, and will provide a glimpse of the often-overlooked contributions of Black women in law enforcement.

The presence of Black women in law enforcement has not been thoroughly recorded. There are tales of Black women who were law enforcement officers in the Wild West who reportedly worked the cow towns and brought criminals to justice. But the following women’s stories illustrate some contributions in the past and the present.

Georgia Ann Robinson

black women in law enforcement

The first known Black female police officer in the United States was Georgia Ann Robinson. Born May 12, 1879, Officer Robinson joined the agency as a volunteer in 1916, after previously being active in community affairs, including her local NAACP branch. Officer Robinson was appointed an officer and community worker by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1919, and she was assigned to juvenile and homicide cases, primarily. Her work included referring woman and girls to social agencies. This work lead to the founding of the Sojourner Truth Home, a shelter for women and girls.

Her career prematurely ended when she lost her sight after being injured by a prisoner, but she continued her community activism. She was married and the mother of one daughter, Marian. She died September 21, 1961.

The evolution of Black women in law enforcement continued. Black women have continued to join the ranks of law enforcement agencies across the country, and have ascended the ranks to lead police agencies in Georgia, Texas, California and in our “Sunshine State” of Florida.

Valdez Demings

black women in law enforcement

Valdez ‘Val’ Demings was born March 12, 1957 in Jacksonville, Florida. She one of seven children raised by her mother, a maid, and her father, a janitor. From those beginnings, she went on to graduate from Florida State University with a degree in criminology.

She returned to Jacksonville and began a career as a social worker, but she knew she wanted to be a law enforcement officer. She moved to Orlando and joined the police department. While in the academy, she was elected class president.

She continued to advance through ranks of the agency, and became the first woman to lead the Orlando Police Department after being named Chief in December 2007. She retired on June 1, 2011 after serving 27 years, but her service to community and country didn’t stop there. She was elected to the United States House of Representatives in Florida’s 10th Congressional District in 2012.

Most recently, she has been seen as a vocal member of the House of Representatives, and she served as an Impeachment Manager in the impeachment proceedings of Donald Trump.

Looking to the Future

The presence of Black women in law enforcement is growing. The National Organization of Black Women (NOBWLE) is devoted to the mission of the hiring and retaining Black women in law enforcement.

Black women are members and leaders of law enforcement agencies at the state and federal levels, as well. With a strong history of service and commitment, Black women have proven they are valued members of our law enforcement community and society as a whole.

Bass Reeves: First Black U.S. Marshall West of the Mississippi

In a continuing series for Black History Month, I would like to provide some information about someone many called the original Lone Ranger: Bass Reeves.

Bass Reeves was born into slavery in July of 1828 in Crawford County, Arkansas. Though he was named after his grandfather, Bass Washington, he took on the surname of his owner, William Steele Reeves, a politician farmer.

In 1846, William Reeves moved his family and all of his operations to Grayson County, Texas. It is believed when the American Civil War began, Williams’s son, a Colonel in the Confederate Army named Georges R. Reeves, took Bass with him into battle.

Accounts state that Bass had an altercation with George that resulted in Bass becoming a free man. The accounts state that Bass severely beat George Reeves over a card game and fled to the Indian Territory, where he lived as a fugitive slave among the Cherokee, Creek and Seminole tribes. Bass stayed in the territories and learned their languages until he was freed by the Thirteenth Amendment (Emancipation Proclamation) in 1863.

With the Emancipation Proclamation in place, Bass Reeves was no longer a fugitive. He left the Indian Territory and purchased land near Van Buren, Arkansas, where he became a successful rancher and farmer. Shortly afterwards, he married Nellie Jennie from Texas and they started a family, raising 10 children: five boys and five girls.

During this time, Bass started working as law enforcement officer in the area.

After the Civil War, many fugitives of justice fled to the Indian Territories due to the lack of formal criminal justice in the vast area. On May 10, 1875, the Federal Western Court was moved to Fort Smith, Arkansas, and Issac C. Parker was appointed Judge. One of Parker’s first acts was to appoint U.S. Marshall James F. Fagan as head of 200 deputies to bring justice to the territory. Fagan had heard of Bass Reeves’ significant knowledge of the area and his ability to speak several tribal languages from his time living among the Native Americans there. Fagan soon hired him as one of the U.S. Marshal deputies.

The area of the territory covered over 75,00 square miles. The deputies usually covered an area of more than 800 miles in a round trip. When they went on ‘patrol’ they were accompanied by a wagon, a cook and a Native American posse man.

Bass Reeves could not read or write, but that did not affect his ability to be an effective deputy and apprehend criminals. Before going out to look for criminals, Reeves would have the information on the warrant read to him and committed it to memory. He would be able to recall the information upon apprehending the fugitives. The deputies were directed to ‘clean up’ the Indian Territory and on Judge Parker’s orders, bring them in alive or dead.

Reeves was an imposing figure, standing 6’2”. He began to earn a reputation as a fearless and successful U.S. Marshall. It is believed that he brought more than 3,000 felons to justice. At least 14 were delivered dead after confrontations with Reeves.

bass reeves

Reeves was known to always ride a large white stallion. He was also known to wear a large hat and was renowned as a spiffy dresser. His boots were always shined to a bright sheen, and he carried two guns. He was known to always be courteous and polite. If the occasion called for it, he could assume various disguises and often utilized aliases to complete his tasks.

There are numerous tales of the adventures and heroics of Bass Reeves. Too many to detail in this submission. It is believed by many that the fictionalized radio and movie character, The Lone Ranger, was based on the exploits of Reeves, who shared many similarities with the character.

In 1887, Reeves was arrested and charged with the murder of a posse cook.  Like many of the outlaws he’d arrested, he was taken before Judge Issac Parker. Represented by U.S. Attorney, W.H.H. Clayton, who was a colleague and friend, Reeves was acquitted.

Reeves continued his law enforcement career. In 1902, after delivering two criminals to Judge Leo Barnett in Muskogee, Oklahoma, he arrived to sad news. His son, Bennie Reeves, was wanted for the murder of his wife in fit of jealousy. Reeves reluctantly went after his son. Two weeks later, Reeves delivered his son to Muskogee and turned him over to Judge Barnett. His son was tried and sentenced to life in prison at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas, but with a citizen’s petition and exemplary behavior, Bennie was released from prison and went on to live as a model citizen.

In 1907, law enforcement duties were assumed by state agencies and Reeves’ duties as deputy marshal came to an end. He took a job as patrol officer with the Muskogee, Oklahoma Police Department.

For over 35 years, Bass Reeves served as Deputy United States Marshal, earning his place in history as one of the most effective lawmen in the Indian Territory.

Bass Reeves became ill in 1909 and died January 12, 1910. He is buried in the Union Agency Cemetery in Muskogee, but the exact location of his grave is unknown. The lengthy and glowing obituary for this universally respected man described him as “absolutely fearless and knowing no master but duty.”

Bass Reeves stands an extraordinary example of a law enforcement professional. During this month of recognizing significant figures in African American History, Bass Reeves is great example Black excellence.

Honoring Courageous 12 Who Fought for Rights

February is designated nationally as African American/Black History Month. During this time, the country acknowledges, commemorates and celebrates the contributions of Black people that have made our society and the world a better place.

In recognition of this month of celebration, I will provide brief articles about the contributions of African Americans to the field of criminal justice.

I will attempt to highlight the achievements, acts of bravery, selflessness and courage exhibited by some African Americans as law enforcement professionals and illustrate how their examples have opened the gates of inclusion and opportunity for all.

The Courageous 12
The Courageous 12

I want to start from a local perspective and talk about a group of 12 Black police officers who worked for the city of St. Petersburg Police Department in the 1960’s. They are known as The Courageous 12.

In the 60’s, the St. Petersburg Police Department practiced the policies and beliefs of the south: separate and not equal. Black police were not able to patrol or answer calls in “white” areas of the city. They were not allowed to write traffic tickets to white motorists or arrest white citizens for violations of the law.

Black Police were not able to patrol ‘white areas’ of the city. They were not allowed to answer calls in ‘white areas’. Not allowed to write traffic tickets to white motorist or make arrest of white citizens taken into custody for violations of the law. Black officers worked walking beats in the “black” areas of the city. They were often in teams in two, but sometimes worked alone.   

White police officers were allowed to work all areas of the city, respond to any calls, drive department police cars to calls, write any motorist a traffic ticket and arrests any citizen suspected of committing a crime – regardless of race.

A group of black officers decided to fight these unjust policies.

The original group was larger than 12. Their fight started by meeting with the police chief, Harold Smith, until he refused to meet with them anymore. Nothing was changing, and the group was confronted with the decision to continue to be mistreated or fight.

One officer, Freddie Crawford, suggested that the group sue the city. After discussion, it was decided to put to the decision to a vote. Several members of group withdrew, but the remaining group voted unanimously to sue. They came to be known as The Courageous 12. They were: Leon Jackson, Adam Baker, Freddie Crawford, Raymond DeLoach, Charles Holland, Robert Keys, Primus Killen, James King, Johnnie B. Lewis, Horace Nero, Jerry Styles and Nathaniel Wooten.

The group of men committed to this action with full knowledge that they put themselves, their families, their livelihoods and reputations at stake.

The group contacted a local lawyer named James Sanderlin to handle the suit. He warned them of the dangerous course they were embarking upon and of the very real consequences. They proceeded with the suit.

On May 11, 1965, they officially filed the lawsuit in Federal Court in Tampa. This action did not sit well with some white officers at the department. Many would not talk to them, some refused to work with them, and others were more overt in their dissatisfaction with the group’s actions, going as far as to say that they would not respond to black officers in distress while on patrol. Some went as far to call them racial epithets to their face and spray paint the same on their lockers. For these black officers, it was not a personal attack against white police officers. It was their fight to be treated and accepted as “full” police by the department and the community they took oaths to serve and protect. In their limited and marginalized capacity, they were not viewed as “full” police officers.  

The original suit was lost in court. The lawsuit was re-submitted upon appeal after the group attained the assistance of NAACP. On August 1, 1968, the appeal was successful and the lawsuit was upheld. The result was the full integration and inclusion of Black officers in the department, including the ability to be promoted and transferred to various departments within the agency.

The action of these 12 men had a nationwide impact. Black police officers across the country followed the same path and won lawsuits granting them the ability to be “full” police officers.

These actions have been transformative with the St. Petersburg Police Department. In fact, the department is currently under leadership of its second black police chief, Anthony Holloway.

The actions of the Courageous 12 have mostly been forgotten or pushed aside by the city’s younger generations. Their actions have been revisited with the opening of the new St. Petersburg Police Station and the ongoing debate of the establishment of a monument befitting these men.

I have had the honor of meeting six of these men. But at the time, I had no idea of how their actions enabled me to have 25-year career in law enforcement.

Leon Jackson is lone surviving member of the 12. His wish is that the actions of Courageous 12 never be forgotten.

In this month of celebration and remembrance, let us not forget the actions of 12 courageous men who impacted countless numbers of professional law enforcement officers across this country and beyond.

Information for the article was taken from the article, Faces of Courage: The Courageous 12 by Frank Drouzas, a St. Petetsburg Times staff writer.